Thursday, August 27, 2020

A Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin

I got this since I like the author; didn't realize it was a kids' book.

Here's the thing though: despite the slightly restrained language and themes, there is a sort of utter modern power here. Le Guin goes for probably the most traditional of all wizarding and fantasy tropes (dragons, staffs, long white beards) and just ever so slightly subverts almost every word through her mental prism. Here you see the boyhood of the ordinarily always-old wise man. You see skin colour that is not white by default. And you see the gradiant, non-linear spread of cultures who trade and intermarry instead of the traditional delineated grid of races in fantasy novels.

In short, it's a study of what a fantasy world could be if it was real. I am pleased, and I will come back to Earthsea.

Friday, August 21, 2020

The Secret River


The Secret River, Kate Grenville

Tense, brutal, calm. And also raw, violent. A different setting: the penal colonies of Australia. Liked it.

Sunday, August 09, 2020

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde


Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson

Quaint and impossibly romantic, in the technical sense of romantic, like where a man but fiddles with some chemicals to discover a physical power the possibility of which he has dreamed up just months prior.

Obviously a captivating idea, but the short story format doesn't do it justice.

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

The Talented Mr. Ripley


The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith

This is awfully depresssing. Just not worth it.

Big talent here. Excellent work. Just... no. I can't believe there's a series of these. Why couldn't she have written something happy?

Monday, August 03, 2020

Chaos

Chaos, James Gleick

Thirty years on my bookshelf and I finally "read" it as an audiobook, and boy do I not regret it.

Of course it's a science book, but it's more a story of discovery and the explorers behind it than the science itself. Quite inspiring actually; it makes you feel like you can do stuff. I started programming the famous (and I guess overdone) Mandelbrot Set visualization because of this book. But it touches on so many other fields and applications, like the weather, epidemic patterns (hey!), animal population trends or heart defibrillator design.

For one thing, where I could see myself doing amateur research is in phase space reconstruction. As far as I understand, although there is a ton of technical jargon that makes it all sound hard to get into, chaos is all about finding a simple formula that visually resembles a complex phenomenon. And phase space reconstruction is a way to reduce complex behaviour to an essential dimension that then makes it easy to find patterns in and match to a formula you might invent.

I'm impressed by this book's journey. Written in the 80's just after chaos threw off its messy and obstructive reputation, it quickly earned a place in public vocabulary through the butterfly effect, its striking graphics and its namesake subject. Yet forty years later, no attempt seems to have been made to re-popularize the subject in a way that would send more research its way. Perhaps it's not necessary? Perhaps we all intrinsically understand chaos? But I doubt that's the case, as many of the ideas here are wrenchingly unintuitive.

It's all about contradiction. Scientists initially thought chaos was either untrue, or useless. How can you use a theory that says "everything is a mess?" But it turns out it's a new kind of mess. Other people wondered what exactly the study of chaos was: neither math, nor science. Observable only as a function of other observations, not really existing on its own. Or as a final example, the book itself. It's about scientists, but much more about their frustrations and dreams than about laws and formulae. Such an enormous subject, one we mention so often, but we talk so little about.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Semiosis


Semiosis, Sue Burke

It's an eery wave.

You know how books can be emotionally exhausting, so that you need a good quantity of energy to read them, and how sometimes you don't want to?

The first sentence, a hard one, tensed me up for some draining. I wanted light reading and I almost abandoned it, but then gave it a shot.

For two hundred pages, it was easy. A slow paddle across a calm lake. I kept looking for the storm; none came.

But wait, that lake was tilting. The same distance paddled caused more uneasiness. The wave was rising. The narrative sombered gradually. Ominous clouds, desperate acts. Easy, uneasy? paddling. And yet no crisis.

No crisis, until the end. One good, regretful, wasteful scar to destroy the tense hope before it. The crest of a wave thundering as it broke. What's on the other side?

Quite perfectly done, actually. I highly recommend.

Pause.

I'd like to say a word about the imagination. There is a great, great subtlety to much of the world-building here. Things that are different about the technology, about the society, about the planet, about each generation, are not explicit but simply there: reflected in a turn of speech or an average of a number of observations. This is very confident imagining, very rich, it feels like it is boundless and we have been shown only the tip of it.

I would very, very much like to see more of this world.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020


Everything Everything, Nicola Yoon

Really cool story. Sounds like it's going to be devastating at first. But such a good ending.


Winnetou and Old Shatterhand


Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, Karl May tr. Marion Ames Taggart

Was described to me as a book on the Wild West written by a man who had never been near the Wild West.

I was intrigued. Sounded like it would be delightfully bad, right?

I urge, if up for some light reading, you be the judge.


Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman


Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, James Gleick

Strangely, this well-written book felt poorly-published. It's a collection of disconnected anecdotes, roughly in chronological order; attractive, but tangled.

There is certainly a dark entertainment in reading of Feynman's work on the atomic bomb, oddly devoid of moral reflection, and some of his other escapades as a teenager. It just doesn't feel like it leads to an end.